In the third inning of a spring training game at Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona last month, San Francisco Giant Will Clark ripped a fastball sharply past first base for what seemed a certain two-base hit. But no. Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire dived for the ball, speared it on the second hop and crawled to the bag, barely beating the runner. Then Clark did an unusual thing. As he crossed the base, he reached down and patted the kneeling McGwire on the head.
It was a revealing gesture. Clark's enthusiasm for the game is such that a fine play by an opposing player will elicit an exuberant response. The head pat was also a way of showing the crowd that he's a good sport, and Clark is an unregenerate crowd-pleaser. But perhaps more than anything else, the pat was this supremely confident young man's way of saying to a kindred star and a rival for fan and press attention in the same metropolitan area, "O.K., good buddy, you got me this time, but my turn is coming." As for McGwire, he merely nodded and went about his business. That says volumes about him as well.
In truth, Clark and McGwire are friendly rivals who have much in common besides their extraordinary ability. They play the same position, and they were both college All-Americas, McGwire at Southern Cal, Clark at Mississippi State. They were teammates on the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team. They were first-round draft choices, McGwire by Oakland in 1984, Clark by San Francisco in 1985. They are both 24 (McGwire is not quite six months older). And they play on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay in ballparks not 30 minutes apart. In all probability, there have not been two such exceptional players of the same age at the same position in such close geographical proximity since Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke in with the New York Yankees and New York Giants, respectively, 37 years ago.
And make no mistake, Clark and McGwire are the genuine article. Clark, in his second major league season, hit .308 with 35 homers and 91 RBIs for the National League West champion Giants in 1987. He became the first Giant to bat better than .300 and hit more than 30 homers in a single season since Willie McCovey did it in 1969, and only the seventh in the franchise's history, joining such distinguished company as Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Walker Cooper, Johnny Mize and Mel Ott. He batted safely in six of the seven League Championship Series games and hit a game-winning two-run homer off the Cardinals' John Tudor in Game 2. His teammates voted him their MVP, and he is considered by connoisseurs of the art of hitting to have the finest natural swing in the game. The Natural, in fact, is one of several nicknames he has accumulated in a career virtually unblemished by failure. Most people, however, just call him Will the Thrill.
April 3, 1988
Impressive as they may be, Clark's '87 figures are like flyspecks compared with those of his cross-Bay confrere. McGwire set an alltime rookie record by hitting 49 home runs, breezing past the old mark of 38, shared by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson, on Aug. 14. He drove in 118 runs, batted .289 and had the highest slugging percentage (.618) in the majors. He became only the second player, after Carlton Fisk in 1972, to be chosen unanimously by the Baseball Writers Association of America as AL Rookie of the Year. And yet McGwire almost didn't make the team in spring training and only began to play regularly at first base in late April.
Clark and McGwire may have youth and talent in common, but they are as dissimilar in temperament and style as, say, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. They don't even see the world the same way. Clark has 20-13 vision in both eyes, and McGwire can't read the Big E on the eye chart without his contact lenses. McGwire is a private and shy man, desperately uncomfortable with his sudden celebrity. He is such an ardent family man that he passed up a chance to hit his 50th home run last year to be at the side of his wife, Kathy, during the birth of their son, Matthew. Clark, on the other hand, is a bachelor with a bevy of girlfriends, one of whom is a former Miss San Francisco. He is a popular man-about-town who frequents many of San Francisco's in restaurants and relishes the attention he receives.
On the field McGwire is workmanlike and undemonstrative, while Clark's every move seems calculated to attract notice, a characteristic he shares with an illustrious predecessor, Mays. McGwire is polite and quiet; Clark is brash and talkative. "There's not a shy bone in this body," says the Thrill, and his natural ebullience occasionally causes him, as teammate Mike Krukow puts it, to "stick his finger in the pan."
One such occasion was the celebration following San Francisco's division-clinching win in San Diego last Sept. 28. Broadcaster Gary Park was positioned in the Giants' clubhouse for live interviews on San Francisco television station KTVU when Clark came whooping and hollering past his camera, clutching a bottle of champagne. "Are you going to drink that stuff or spray it?" Park inquired, chuckling nervously. Clark did neither. Instead he stared wild-eyed into the camera, blurted out the F word and shouted, most inappropriately for a second-year player, "I've been waiting a lo-o-o-o-ng time for this." After that he became known, briefly, as Will the Shrill.
McGwire was an unheralded rookie in April. By midseason he had become the Bambino reincarnated, but he was so humble about it that he aroused neither resentment nor envy among his teammates. Says coach Jim Lefebvre, "He had an attitude you'd like to copy and distribute to all young players."
Clark came to the Giants as a can't-miss star after only 65 games in Class A ball, and he hit a home run off Nolan Ryan in his first major league at bat. Because he's incapable of tempering his soaring enthusiasm, he became the target of more than the usual hazing from the older Giants. Once he returned to the clubhouse and found that a treasured pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots had been mysteriously painted a hideous orange. He accepted the cruel joke with such good humor that he won over all but the crankiest of his teammates. "He handled the pranks with the grace of a veteran," says chief prankster Bob Brenly. "He can laugh at himself," adds Krukow, "and that's essential in this game."
But Clark can still get on the nerves of less tolerant players. Late last season he got caught in a brief shoving match with the owlish Jeffrey Leonard. Clark explains away the tiff as "just two people who spent eight months together and finally rubbed each other the wrong way. It's forgotten."
"Will is a great player, an impact player," says Krukow. "This team would not be the same without him. Anybody who's jealous or resentful of that just doesn't belong here. Hey, the guy's a meal ticket."
The Thrill is dining at a Scottsdale restaurant owned by former Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone, who's now a Cubs broadcaster. Clark's dark brown hair, prematurely thinning, is combed straight back in a style befitting some swell in a Fitzgerald novel. He is a lean 6'1", 193 pounds, a conventionally handsome young man with a strong chin, aquiline nose and large, dark, penetrating eyes. His voice is surprisingly high-pitched.
"I take a lot of flak for my voice," he says between bites of chicken. "I take flak for a lot of things. But that's O.K. I've always thought this was a game and that games were meant to be fun. I'm enjoying myself out there all the time. You get labeled as cocky or arrogant, but what I am is emotional and confident. If you're good and you can back it up, you can talk. I don't mind the flak at all, the pranks. I think it keeps everybody loose. I can't believe that Kirk Gibson [of the Los Angeles Dodgers] walked off the field because they put eye-black in his cap.
"Oh, I took a lot of flak for the TV blunder, too. Well, I'm very emotional, as I say, and it takes me awhile to unwind, particularly after we won the division. So I walked off the field, grabbed a bottle of champagne, and all of a sudden, I've got a mike in my face. I wasn't aware I was on live TV. The station sent me a tape of the whole thing. I think I used the F word once. It didn't embarrass me, but I felt I should make a public apology, and I did. After that, I got tons of fan mail telling me how glad people were to see a Giant show a little emotion.
"I've never been shy, even as a kid. I like to get around San Francisco and see people. I think the people there like that. Once I went into the Fog City Diner [a popular San Francisco restaurant], and I saw Lauren Hutton, the actress. I went right up to her and introduced myself. She didn't have any idea who I was. That's O.K., she didn't look as good as she does in the movies anyway." Clark pauses for a breath and a bite of chicken.
"Chris Berman [of ESPN] was the first one to call me the Natural. And Bob Brenly gave me the Thrill. I like to leave funny messages on my answering service, even play records on it. Once, I left B.B. King's 'The Thrill Is Gone' on it. That got a lot of laughs. They call my dad Bill, and that's what I'll call my son when I have one. I'm a third-generation native of New Orleans, and I went to the same Jesuit high school as my dad. He was a four-sport star there. I played baseball and basketball. I didn't really commit myself to baseball until my sophomore year. I've been to a World Series in Babe Ruth League level, American Legion and at Mississippi State. And I've been to the Olympic Games. That was something. I met Mark [McGwire] there. I could tell he'd make it. He's so gifted, so big and strong."
An attractive young woman enters the restaurant. Clark sees her, apparently without even looking. "I've got great peripheral vision," he says, smiling slyly. "It helps me catch all of Roger Craig's signs."
He looks vaguely serious and continues: "You know, I went through a lot that first year with the Giants—the pranks, being labeled a phenom, and the injury in the middle of the season [he missed 47 games in '86 because of a hyperextended left elbow]. Even when I came back I couldn't extend completely on my swing and I lost power. I became a singles-and-doubles hitter, and I'm really a line drive hitter with power. The fans weren't seeing the real me that year. But I went to Mackie Shilstone [the New Orleans conditioning expert] back home and got that extension and flexibility back. I worked with him last winter, too. I gained seven pounds of muscle and lost some body fat. I feel strong. I'm ready. I've been to a World Series at every amateur level. It's time now for one as a pro."
McGwire is sitting in the Athletics' dugout after winning a game with the California Angels with a two-run seventh-inning homer. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, he rests his enormous forearms on his knees and stares impassively out at the field. His face is freckled and boyish and red hair spills from beneath his green cap. The face and the body don't seem to match. This pleasant young man has many sides that are not exactly compatible. He removes his cap, rubs his forehead and starts to speak slowly.
"This past winter," he says, "I had the time for once to think about what happened to me last season, and I still can't quite believe what I did. It really took a toll on me. Players who have played for 15 years haven't had to deal with what I dealt with. I never wanted to be in the public eye. All I want away from the ballpark is to be with my family and friends, but I can't even go into a restaurant now without being bothered. And everybody knows me as Mark McGwire the baseball player. I don't want to be just the baseball player. I want to be myself.
"I was always the kind of kid who liked to sit in the back of the room and just blend in. I've lived in Claremont [Calif.] since I was seven years old. My dad, John McGwire, is a dentist, and I had a middle-class upbringing. I was always just a basic athlete, nothing extraordinary. But I was a hard worker. And I liked to do a lot of that work where people couldn't see me. I'd throw balls against a cement wall or set a ball on a tee and hit it."
As a boy McGwire was not certain he wanted to be a ballplayer. In fact, for a time he preferred a more solitary sport. "Golf was the first game I learned," he says. "My dad taught me how to grip a club when I was five, and I never had another lesson. But I won some tournaments, and in my junior year in high school I quit baseball to work on my golf game. The thing I liked about golf was that you were the only one there to blame when something went wrong. I missed baseball, though, and I went back to it.
"In college I started taking the game seriously. My coach. Rod Dedeaux, was a strong influence on me, particularly in the mental aspects of the game. 'Don't make the same mistake once,' he'd say. You know, I never wanted my life to change the way it has. It's mind-boggling. There are times when I've said to myself that I wished I hadn't done what I did last year. Why, I'd think, did it have to happen to me?"
Then he smiles. "Well, life is really just a bunch of adjustments, isn't it?" he says. "And I think I've come to terms with things. I'm realistic. I don't know that I'll ever hit 49 home runs again. If I do, great. But I do know that nobody's ever averaged 49 home runs a year. I never set number goals anyway.
"What I've learned is that now that I'm a father, I intend to keep my wife and my son to myself. I let too many people into my home last year, and this time I want to protect them from all that. All I want to do is perform well and have some peace and quiet." He sits up straight, smiling again. "The funny thing is, I just love this game."
That's at least one sentiment he shares with that fun-loving guy across the Bay. They love their sport, and right now their future in it knows no bounds. They don't get to see each other much during the season, but both are thinking that there just might be a rendezvous of sorts this October. After all, it happened to Mantle and Mays.